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Silly rabbit: (l-r) Harriet Nichols and Joel Aroeste in NYSTI’s Harvey.

Play Nice
By James Yeara

By Mary Chase, directed by Ralph Allen

New York State Theatre Institute, through Feb. 15

Mary Chase’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning comic crowd-pleaser Harvey is an old-fashioned treat, as dated as saltwater taffy and twice as sweet. Written to cheer a wartime audience, the play ran on Broadway for almost four years (directed by Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony awards are named). Thus the original production has the history: In addition to the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony connection, Harvey’s been a staple of community theaters since its Broadway run ended in 1949; its reputation enhanced by the popularity of the 1950 Academy Award-winning film starring Jimmy Stewart, who also played Elwood P. Dowd twice during the Broadway run. Coupled with the play’s premise, that a man who likes to drink has a “pooka,” an Irish folk spirit, in the form of an invisible (to most people) 6-foot-tall white rabbit named Harvey, creates safe, popular fare. The play is whimsical fun, with a positive, feel-good message and a little titillation at the expense of psychology and small-town gossips.

The New York State Theatre Institute’s current production wisely gives Harvey a dated look, sticking to wonderful 1940s costumes (Robert Anton gives the characters the colors of swirling sherbet, lime and peach and lavender, to float around the stage in) and a great turntable set by George Allison that is as much fun to watch as the actual play: When the stage turns, the lights dim, the furniture is moved to the center and the stagehands huddle and freeze, there’s a fascination of the unseen world being glimpsed that makes perfect sense in Harvey. It’s like watching the 6-foot pooka get into his tux; in NYSTI’s production the huge painting of Harvey that is a sight gag in Act II looks like a Hugh Hefner bunny in tux, holding not a martini glass but a sandwich. It’s one of many cute touches—the rabbit ear gobos cast on the upstage center wall as the lights dim being another—that make this Harvey very user-friendly.

And like the mischievous pooka, the theatrical fates conspire to surround this Harvey with that most theatrical of clichés: The show must go on. When the lead actor had an appendectomy the night before opening, in true theatrical tradition befitting this trusty chestnut, understudy David Baecker stepped into Elwood P. Dowd after only two rehearsals and beamed his way to beatific splendor. The universal comment during intermission—“He’s doing very well”—speaks volumes for the good cheer that surrounds NYSTI’s Harvey. Baecker literally shines in the role, and even his invisible Harvey is more animated and solid than many of his co-inhabitors of the stage. There are magic moments in the production, particularly when the doors open and close by themselves as Harvey chases the arrogant Dr. Chumley (another excellent exact characterization by Joel Aroeste), that more than offset the stumbling, mumbling, fumbling ones.

And if the story of dipsomaniac Dowd and his protective white rabbit seems dated today, and if the frequent sexual innuendoes never rise at NYSTI (always the most asexual of region’s theaters), this Harvey does prove Elwood P. Dowd’s Act III advice: “In this world you can be oh-so smart or oh-so pleasant. . . . I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.” This is a very pleasant production of a very pleasant play.

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